PORTLAND, Ore. — After a four-year absence, Indiana is making its NCAA tournament return last longer than just one brief appearance.
And even though it's one victory, it's still a moment worthy of reflection for Indiana coach Tom Crean after rebuilding a gutted program and leading the Hoosiers to a 79-66 win over New Mexico State — their first in the NCAA tournament in five years.
"I think when I look up at the crowd and catch a glimpse of my family ... it hits you for a brief moment that this is really, really special," Crean said. "We've been through so much to get to this point. We've all learned a great deal. Everybody is better. It didn't seem like it at the time, but everybody is better for what we had to endure."
Now if the Hoosiers want to keep this tournament return going for another week, they'll just need to take out Shaka Smart and those bracket-busting upstarts from VCU.
Jordan Hulls went on a second-half shooting spree and finished with 22 points, and the fourth-seeded Hoosiers rolled Thursday night in the second round of the South Regional.
Indiana picked up its first tournament win since beating Gonzaga in 2007 on a night its main stars — Cody Zeller and Christian Watford — did the heavy lifting in the opening minutes then watched Hulls and others take over.
Hulls shot 8 of 12, and 7 of 8 in the second half including his own personal 11-point run as the Hoosiers (26-8) blew the game open. Zeller, Watford and Will Sheehey all finished with 14 points for Indiana as part of a 59 percent shooting display that propelled the Hoosiers to the weekend.
Next up for the Hoosiers are the 12th-seeded Rams in the third-round Saturday afternoon and the chance for Indiana to find its way back to the regional semifinals for the first time since going to the Final Four in 2002.
"In a situation like this, there's some physical to it, but it's much more mental and retention, and seeing how it applies to you," Crean said. "I'm looking forward to being up late."
Wendell McKines led New Mexico State (26-10) with 15 points and nine rebounds, but the champions of the Western Athletic Conference had too much trouble getting shots up against Indiana's defense in the early stages of the second half after trailing by seven at halftime. Bandja Sy added 12 off the bench and Daniel Mullings scored 10.
But while the Aggies were fighting just to get their shots off, the Hoosiers were running off multiple screens and finding themselves open for layups. Just as key was Indiana's ability to negate the Aggies' bulk on the interior. NMSU, the top team in the country at free-throw attempts, had just 10. The Aggies were also held to just seven offensive rebounds, half their season average.
"I thought we had a little lull there as far as being aggressive in our rebounding because they did a good job," New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies said. "They knew we were a very good rebounding team, so they were hitting them."
If there were any nerves considering their lack of tournament experience, the Hoosiers showed none early. Waterford and Zeller ran free for dunks, and before the first media timeout Indiana already had a 10-point lead. But sloppiness on both sides overshadowed a first-half where each team shot better than 50 percent. The Aggies had 13 turnovers while Indiana gave it up nine times and even with Zeller sitting the final 3 minutes of the half with foul trouble, the Hoosiers led 35-28 at the break.
The first half was just a precursor to the Hoosiers' offensive efficiency the final 20 minutes. Indiana hit its first three shots and 11 of 16 to start the half. No one was hotter than Hulls. After hitting just one shot in the first half, Hulls scored 11 straight during one stretch including a trio of 3-pointers, the last of which gave Indiana a 62-41 lead with 11:14 left.
"I hit the first shots, so then (it) started feeling a little better once it started leaving my hands and I was able to knock down some shots," Hulls said. "But I got the majority of my shots from my teammates just setting up good ball screens for me."
New Mexico State awakened, making sure Hulls didn't get open looks and started knocking down some of its own shots. A 10-2 Aggies run, capped by Sy's 3-pointer, cut the deficit to 64-51 with 7:40 remaining. The run stalled when Mullings was called for traveling in transition and the Aggies never got closer than 12.
"It was heartbreaking every time we'd get on a little run, they'd come down and just dagger us with 3s," New Mexico State's Hamidu Rahman said.
The Hoosiers impressed playing without Verdell Jones III who suffered a torn ACL in his right knee in the Big Ten tournament against Penn State. The Hoosiers were ousted from the Big Ten tourney the day after Jones was injured and the past week was the first chance for the Hoosiers to adjust to not having the former starter and reliable backup coming off the bench.